Humidity is the enemy. A warm day isn't great, either, but humidity is the killer, a force of nature that ice makers around the National Hockey League battle throughout the season in hockey's southern reaches and most everywhere as the calendar trundles towards spring.
The moisture in the air gravitates to the coldest nearby location, a sheet of ice being a fine resting place for airborne water vapor. It corrodes ice. The puck bounces, flutters, jumps erratically, and skaters slow, their blades dragging through friction, and on the slightly softer ice, the metal carves in, further worsening the playing surface.
Years back, these were standard NHL conditions. But today, even in the far southern outposts of the league, refrigeration and dehumidification technology, alongside modern building construction – and constant maintenance and vigilance by ice crews – combine to at least somewhat stave off inevitable wear. The assault is constant, from the play of the game, to the heat, arena lights and upwards of 20,000 spectators, radiating during a contest.
The difference from decades back to today is marked. The American Airlines Center in Dallas, opened in 2001, can maintain reasonable ice whenever hockey is played. The now-razed Reunion Arena was home to slushy ice – hockey in June in Texas – when the Dallas Stars made back-to-back Stanley Cup finals in 1999 and 2000.
Ice in the NHL, in all corners, is far better than it once was but it is remains imperfect, especially as players get bigger and stronger, grinding into frozen water harder than ever before, the physics of the modern athlete. Then there are the many busy buildings, like Dallas, where hockey is but one in a panoply of entertainment.
Veterans around the league attest to it. Ray Whitney is blunt. He's been in the business more than two decades, playing for teams across southern locales: San Jose, Florida, Carolina, Phoenix and currently Dallas.
He credits the league, and its ice guru, Dan Craig, for doing the best they can – but the reality is not glass smooth.
On Thursday after practice, Whitney said that NHL ice is generally mediocre. But, he added, "It's just part of the game. You've got to be able to play on it." Teammate Jaromir Jagr, who was a rookie was one year before Whitney's, said multiuse arenas were a particularly problem: "The ice is never going to be good."
The American Airlines Center is one of the busiest arenas in the United States and the world. The recent calendar: Wednesday, basketball, Mavericks hosted the Orlando Magic; Thursday, Stars and Canucks; Friday, the pop singer Pink; Saturday, San Jose Sharks visit Stars; Sunday, Los Angeles Lakers in town; and, then, wrestling, Monday Night Raw. The annual calendar also features the likes of monster trucks and rodeos.
Through hockey season, the ice sheet, roughly three centimetres thick, is left in place, with tightly wound refrigeration coils, which would run eight kilometres long if laid end to end, buried in the concrete below it. Then, on the many non-hockey nights, an insular covering about two centimetres thick sits above.
The work to turn a basketball court into a hockey rink took place late Wednesday night, three hours of work for a crew of 30, finishing past midnight. Then the iced was "shaved" – a Zamboni cleans off the snow – and "reconditioned," flooded with water to add fresh ice, on top of the 100-plus layers that compose the sheet.
In between basketball and Pink, Cody Bateman was at the helm, the arena's chief ice technician. He gets the air temperature inside down to 16 C. And beyond the powerful refrigeration and dehumidification systems – Bateman likes his relative humidity at 35 per cent, much better than the 44 per cent considered acceptable by the league – it is the many little things that keep the place insulated from the outside. Credit Dave Brown for a lot of the thinking. The general manager of American Airlines Center started in the business 27 years ago as parking manager at Reunion, an arena he eventually ran, so he knew what to improve when he helped on the new building's design.
The mission: Keep the dry cold in, and wet heat out. Heavy black curtains cover the entryways to seating in lower bowl, a barrier from the blasts of warmth from outside when the building doors open and fans stream in. The corrugated doors on utility entrances below for truck deliveries roll up and down fast, rather than creaking slowly. The hot halogen lights in the rafters are kept off outside of practices and the game.
"We try to make our own little mini-Canada in here," said Bateman rinkside on Thursday as the Stars practised.
As for slushy ice, the NHL's Craig works to ensure such conditions are a relic. He made his reputation in Edmonton, and joined the league in 1997. Ice around the continent is "10 times better" in his tenure, he reckons. The fight for great ice is constant. Humidity may be a steady challenge in southern markets, but it would be the same in Canadians cities like Montreal, Toronto or Winnipeg – if the country sees hockey in June again someday.
"It doesn't matter what time of year it is," said Craig this week from a routine visit to Tampa Bay. "I want to know what it's going to be like on June 15."